When I gave a public lecture at Calvin College in November 2011 to mark the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession, I expected a fairly small crowd: a few colleagues from the college and Calvin Theological Seminary, a sprinkling of people interested in Reformation-related topics, and friends who faithfully attend every event we organize. Yet the room was packed.
What drew so many people that afternoon was the hope that we would discuss the Belhar Confession. Right now in congregations and classes across the CRCNA, study groups and individuals are reflecting on whether the Belhar should be adopted as a confession in this denomination. Others had come because they wanted to reflect together about the role confessions have played and still play in the Reformed faith and the Christian Reformed Church.
What are confessions for, exactly? Since we have the Bible, why do we need confessions? Why did sixteenth-century Reformed Christians spend so much time and energy creating these confessions? Are these old documents still relevant, and do they still speak to us today?
A quick overview of the history of confessions can help address some of these questions. The practice of producing confessions of faith stretches back to the early church: the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed, for example. These statements of faith were intended to convey, reasonably concisely, what the church believed and, either implicitly or explicitly, what it rejected.
Creedal statements were never issued in a vacuum, but instead emerged as a result of controversies or disagreements in the church—over the two natures of Christ, for instance, or the doctrine of the Trinity. Creeds and confessions were ways for the community of faith to hammer out what it believed. In the process, these texts clarified which beliefs and doctrines the church upheld and which ones it did not.
In the Reformation era, the practice of issuing confessions gathered steam as each branch of the Christian church sought to articulate its own understanding of its beliefs. The Swiss and south German Anabaptists held to the Schleitheim Articles in 1527, the Lutherans adopted the Augsburg Confession in 1530, and the English church established the Thirty-Nine Articles in 1571. Not to be outdone, Reformed believers in the Swiss cities united around the First and Second Helvetic confessions in 1536 and 1566; the French Huguenots agreed on their own confession of faith in 1559; the Scots issued theirs a year later in 1560; and the Belgic Confession appeared a year after that, in 1561.
So even among Reformed believers, there was never just one confession held by everyone. Instead, each linguistic and cultural group developed its own, though there was a great deal of cross-fertilization. For example, Guy de Brès, the author of the Belgic Confession, made extensive use of the French confession of faith of 1559 in his own version.
None of these creeds and confessions, whether adopted in the early church or in the Reformation era, was ever intended to stand in the place of Scripture. In fact, in many instances, the confessions had biblical references in the margins so readers could check that the doctrines presented were grounded in God’s Word.
A Dual Audience
The purpose of the confessions was to articulate in a reasonably compact and accessible form what the community of faith believed, both to bring together members of that community around a set of shared principles and to provide accurate information to those who held to different beliefs. In other words, these were documents with a dual audience.
Here’s where the historical context is important. Guy de Brès wrote the Belgic Confession, for example, primarily for the Catholic authorities in the Netherlands. During a period when the Catholic powers in the Netherlands were actively searching out, arresting, and executing those whom they labeled as heretics, getting the true story across about what the Reformed church believed was a challenging task. In fact, someone (possibly de Brès himself or another Reformed leader) took advantage of the dark autumn nights to toss a wrapped-up copy of the Belgic Confession over the wall of the castle in Tournai in November 1561, to get it safely into the hands of the Catholic leadership without endangering him or herself. We know the booklet was found and read the next day, because a letter survives from the castle garrison to the Regent Margaret of Parma about the incident.
The original text of the confession was also accompanied by two letters, one for King Philip II and the other for the magistrates of the Netherlands, explaining that Reformed believers were not seditious rebels and asking for toleration and protection. In the confession, de Brès took particular pains to distinguish the Reformed views from the beliefs of the Anabaptists, who were perceived by every other confessional group at the time as dangerous sectarians. Yet the Catholic authorities seemingly were not convinced: when de Brès and fellow-pastor Pérégrin de la Grange were arrested following the outbreak of Reformed iconoclasm and a revolt against the troops of Margaret of Parma in the city of Valenciennes, the two men were swiftly tried and executed by public hanging in May 1567.
However, once the Belgic Confession began to be adopted as an official statement of faith of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands beginning in the mid-1560s, the internal audience for the document began to take precedence over the external one. By 1581, the Reformed synod of Middelburg made it mandatory for pastors, elders, deacons, schoolteachers, and professors of theology to subscribe to the Belgic Confession.
Thus, over the course of twenty years the primary aim of the document changed from one designed to tell Catholics about Reformed beliefs to one meant to ensure a common confessional outlook among the Reformed leadership in the church.
What about the Belhar?
It might be more helpful to consider the confessions as living documents rather than texts set in stone.
So where does that leave us? It is clear that the original authors of these confessions were writing in response to very pressing contemporary circumstances, often ones of religious conflict. They were not consciously planning to write a perfectly-crafted document for the ages. In fact, many of these texts, such as the French confession of faith and the Belgic Confession, went through numerous revisions at the hands of successive synods within a few years of their publication. It might be more helpful to consider the confessions as living documents rather than texts set in stone.
As the CRCNA considers whether or not to adopt the Belhar, maybe one of the most helpful steps we could take would be to re-acquaint ourselves with the text of the confession we already have and with its dramatic early history. Some of the discussion about adopting the Belhar might be more fruitful if we come to realize that, like the Belhar, the sixteenth-century confessions also were grounded in a particular time and place, and were written with particular burning contemporary issues and specific audiences in mind.
You can find a link to the full text of the Belhar Confession at crcna.org/pages/belhar.cfm.